Some are suspicious of Seattle officials’ decision to cut ties with neighborhood-based district councils and form a Community Involvement Commission whose members will be appointed by City Hall. Supporters say the hope is to bring younger and more diverse groups into civic life.
For nearly 30 years, district councils of neighborhood volunteers have played a special role in connecting Seattle’s government with the city’s people. No longer.
Last month, the City Council severed the city’s official ties with the 13 district councils and their umbrella group, the City Neighborhood Council — and laid outa new approach to public engagement, starting with a Community Involvement Commission.
The commission will take over from the City Neighborhood Council in advising City Hall on priorities, policies and how to distribute grants for neighborhood projects.
The new body’s members will be appointed by the mayor and the City Council, unlike City Neighborhood Council members, who are drawn from the district councils.
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There are plans to develop better strategies for engaging people online and in languages other than English. The goal is to hear from different and diverse groups in addition to the people who have led district councils for years.
“Since the district councils were created, so much has changed. More tools are available, more access points,” said Kathy Nyland, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s Department of Neighborhoods director. “We didn’t even have email 30 years ago.”
But replacing the bottom-up district-council system with an appointed commission could reduce the amount of pushback the mayor and City Council receive, some say.
Former Department of Neighborhoods director Jim Diers, who helped build the district-council system during in the late 1980s and early 1990s, issued a warning.
“Seattle’s strength is its neighborhoods — these unique places where people support each other,” said Diers, a consultant now teaching Seattle-style community building in cities across the globe, from Canada to New Zealand and the Netherlands.
“This seems like we’re going back to the old Seattle process that turned so many people off — where everything is controlled from City Hall, from the top down.”
The mayor called the district-council system outdated and said new tools would be needed to better connect with immigrants and refugees, low-income residents, people of color, renters, single parents, youth, people who are homeless and the LGBTQ community.
The reasoning went like this: Many people are unable to attend the weeknight meetings that district councils tend to use, and many people experience the city through communities based on ethnicity or interest rather than through neighborhoods.
Murray cited information collected at meetings a few years ago. District-council attendees are mostly older, white homeowners.
In contrast, more than a third of Seattle residents are people of color, and 52 percent of the city’s housing units are rentals. The city’s median age is 36. District councils work for some people, but clearly don’t represent others well.
The mayor also mentioned a 2009 city auditor report recommending improvements to the district-council system, and he pointed to the City Council, which asked the Department of Neighborhoods last year to adjust its programs in light of City Council members being elected for the first time to represent seven geographic districts.
The mayor’s move angered some people. Matt McBride, Delridge District Council chair, was surprised Murray wanted to scrap the existing system rather than improve it.
“It did a real disservice to a lot of people who had invested years and decades in grass-roots volunteerism,” the 45-year-old said.
Murray’s criticism was unfair, agreed Dan Sanchez, Central Area District Council chair. Because district councils include representatives from community councils, nonprofits and business groups, they give voice to a range of people, Sanchez said.
The Central Area District Council, for example, includes representatives from a number of community councils, a neighborhood arts group, an African-American veterans group and business groups, said Sanchez, 50.
City Councilmember Tim Burgess applauded the substance of Murray’s order but questioned the rhetoric that came with it. “You can push for more inclusive engagement without criticizing the people who have been the most engaged so far,” Burgess said.
Some people reacted negatively because they misunderstood the mayor’s announcement, Nyland said. Though district councils will no longer receive special staff time and other assistance, the city isn’t shutting them down, Nyland said. On the contrary, they’ll be able to request support the same way other groups do, she said.
McBride and Sanchez said their district councils will each carry on much like before.
“The district councils will continue to be a valuable partner,” Nyland said. “We want to treat them like any other group. Not more important, not less important. Still important.”
Hubs for networking
That raises the question: How important have district councils been?
Since the late 1980s, their main responsibilities have been to rate grant applications for projects such as block parties, political forums and community gardens, and to advise the city on neighborhood planning. The latter was more relevant in the 1990s, when thousands of citizens worked with officials to create 38 neighborhood plans.
Sanchez said most of what the Central Area District Council now does is convey information between the city’s government and an array of neighborhood groups.
That makes sense, Diers said, because district councils were always meant to be networking hubs. They were never meant to serve as a lower rung of government.
“They never had real power,” he said. “They were created to help people connect.”
District councils are dominated by policy wonks and people involved in neighborhood groups. Many people knew little or nothing about them before Murray’s order.
Some voters were so confused they called Nyland over the summer under the mistaken impression that the mayor was trying to get rid of the City Council, she said.
Though Janice Van Cleve is active in her Capitol Hill neighborhood, primarily through the Democratic Party, the 71-year-old has never been to a district council meeting.
“Few people even know they exist,” said Van Cleve, who backs the new approach. “You can go to any neighborhood — 99 percent of people don’t know about them.”
Last month’s ordinance tasks the Department of Neighborhoods with developing new engagement plans for each government agency and for the city as a whole.
The results are supposed to include a new strategy for engaging people in multiple languages, new methods for engaging people digitally, a directory of community organizations and a new review process for Neighborhood Matching Fund grants.
Ref Lindmark, a veteran of the Green Lake Community Council, the Northwest District Council and the City Neighborhood Council, said he’s happy the city wants new ideas.
“I’m proud of the work we did in years past, but the old structure left a lot of people out of the equation,” Lindmark said. “We need to find new ways to communicate.”
That’s what Andy Huynh would prefer. The 18-year-old, who serves on the city’s Youth Commission, said young people prefer to communicate via social media.
“Everyone is on Twitter and Snapchat and all that,” he said.
Huynh has never been to a district council meeting and identifies with Seattle’s Chinese and gay communities more than with his neighborhood, Beacon Hill, he said.
About 70 percent of the survey’s 3,500 respondents have said they like getting information from the city via email. About 26 percent have said they like meetings.
“Some people think this is a power grab,” Nyland said of the changes, which may include more online communication. “But I truly believe this is a power share.”
Yusuf Abdi, who’s involved in the East African immigrant community, isn’t so sure.
While Abdi thinks the district-council system lacked racial and economic diversity, he said there could be another motivation for the changes. He believes the mayor and City Council want a public-engagement system they can count on for political support.
The district councils include representatives from neighborhood groups critical of Murray’s “grand bargain”— a plan to upzone parts of the city while imposing new affordable-housing rules on developers, the 45-year-old Bitter Lake resident noted.
Seven of the Community Involvement Commission’s members will be selected by the mayor, one each by the seven City Council members who represent districts, and two by the commission itself. The appointments will be made in early 2017.
“They’re doing this to get more control,” Abdi said. “Their intention isn’t to create more diversity. They’re going to appoint people who agree with them 100 percent.”
Dustin Washington, who works with Seattle youth through the American Friends Service Committee, is also unimpressed with the changes. If Murray wants to hear different voices, he could pay more attention to people meeting in black churches and with youth organizing to combat racial disparities in the justice system, Washington said.
“The mayor only wants to hear people who flow with his own agenda,” he said. “My sense is that this mayor is beholden to developers and the wealthy in this city.”